In Kenya, the Ogiek of Mt. Elgon are a community on the frontlines of forest conservation
Nicole Harris, with inputs from Peter Kitelo, Patrick Kipalu and Kendi Borona
13 .07. 2022  
6 minutes read

Across the beautiful landscape of Mt. Elgon Forest Reserve, Chepkitale Community Land and Mt. Elgon National Park, which straddles the borders of Kenya and Uganda, governments have long painted country, county and community borders in ways designed to expel or make invisible the Indigenous Ogiek community who have protected the region’s forests for millennia.

In collaboration with the Ogiek of Mt. Elgon’s local community-based organization, the Chepkitale Indigenous Peoples’ Development Project (CIPDP), RRI recently organized a visit to shine light on the transformative role of community-led conservation in protecting the biodiversity-rich forests of Mt. Elgon.

The visit aimed to bring the Ogiek’s remarkable story to the first-ever IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC) taking place in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2022.

On June 13-18, I accompanied my colleagues Patrick Kipalu and Kendi Borona and two independent journalists to Chepkitale, a remote hunter-gatherer community situated inside the boundary of the “protected areas” of Mt. Elgon, to see first-hand how the Ogiek are protecting a landscape home to 400 vegetative species and at least 144 bird species.

This is a snapshot of what we learned.

Left: View of Mt. Elgon from the top of the hill about 30km west of Kitale. Right: A tree plantation of non-native trees planted by KFS. Photos: Nicole Harris/RRI.

Indigenous knowledge protects biodiversity

Piled into an off-road vehicle driving west along one of the only paved roads we’d see for the next few days, we made a quick stop at a viewpoint on top of a hill.

This hill, and the beautiful surroundings it overlooks, used to belong to the Ogiek of Mt. Elgon before it was grabbed during the colonial period in the early 20th century. Now, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) is replacing the region’s natural resources with non-native tree plantations.

Tree plantations such as the one photographed above are common in the lower mountainous region of the gazetted Mt. Elgon Forest Reserve and are part of the controversial Shamba System that the Kenyan government, and subsequently KFS, have been implementing in one form or another since the colonial period. Also known as the Plantation Establishment for Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS), KFS cuts native forests and replaces them with plantations of quick-growing and imported foreign tree species. These trees are subsequently sold to commercial timber companies and logged.

The observed negative changes to the local biodiversity are proof that these tree plantations are harmful to both local wildlife and the environment since they are unable to achieve the crucial ecological functions that a natural biologically rich forest ecosystem can provide.

As we drove further up the mountain and into customary Ogiek territory, the landscape changed dramatically. The trees became denser and more diverse, the plantations all but disappeared, and animals like cattle and goat became more populous. We quickly learned that this was not a coincidence, but a result of community-led conservation.

Left: One of 2,000 beehives in Chepkitale. Each hive is made from bamboo and wrapped in twine with honeycomb inside. A long piece of tree bark is placed on top of the hive to protect it from rain. Right: Peter Kitelo from CIPDP being interviewed in Ogiek customary territory on Mt. Elgon. Photos: Nicole Harris/RRI.

The exotic trees that KFS has planted do not flower and are detrimental to the region’s honeybees. In Chepkitale, honeybees are thriving in areas where community members have systematically placed and mapped more than 2,000 beehives. Honey production is one of the cornerstones of the Ogiek community-led economy. It is dependent on having an ecosystem that has a diversity of vegetation and for this, the community’s bylaws are very strict: only deadwood is harvested for firewood and other purposes.

Wildlife such as the African forest elephant do not eat foreign plant species and have migrated west to live (and thrive) in Ogiek customary territory where they feel safer and find abundant food. The community believes that due to poaching in the national park, the elephants prefer to roam in their territory.

“History tells us [that since] time immemorial we have been here. The biodiversity of this land is who we are,” said Cosmas Murunga, an Ogiek elder, in an interview with RRI.

“We want to maintain the integrity of our land. We do not want to be rich. We want to be kind to our animals. We want to be respectful to our vegetation. The environment is the pride of our people.”


Community-led conservation works. Indigenous and local communities have a unique relationship with the land that reflects their symbiotic connection with nature, and the Ogiek of Mt. Elgon are no exception. In Kenya, these stories of reciprocity and community are often overshadowed by the continent’s colonial history.

The 2010 Kenya Constitution and the history of the fight for land rights

The 2010 Kenya Constitution is the first piece of legislation in the country to recognize community land. CIPDP played an instrumental role in the passage of the Constitution as well as the Community Land Act of 2016.

CIPDP was established in 2003 and its mission is to help the Ogiek of Mt. Elgon regain their rights that were lost. In the year 2000, the Kenyan government doubly evicted the community from these lands that they had resided on since the colonial period. They further clandestinely gazetted Chepkitale Trust Land, the only remaining lawfully held ancestral lands of the community for a national game reserve in the name of “conservation.”

“CIPDP has been working with RRI for almost 10 years now to help the community regain their rights. When communities have secure land tenure, they tend to look after their lands for the long-haul. They tend to manage their lands in a way that protects it for future generations,” said Peter Kitelo, Executive Director of CIPDP.

CIPDP has two court cases pending pronouncement of judgment, one on the clandestine gazettement of Chepkitale and another on the interpretation of the constitution of Kenya 2010 art 63 (2) (d) (ii) that the community hopes will finally return the lands to their rightful owners.

“The community feels that these are our lands and when something is yours, you fight for it.”


Taking local messages to a global stage

The same week, with funding from RRI’s Strategic Response Mechanism and Forest Peoples Programme, the Ogiek of Mt. Elgon hosted seven other Indigenous communities from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania for the 2022 East Africa Assemblies. The assemblies aimed to bring agreement through consensus on the key messages that Indigenous leaders from the Ogiek, Maasai, Batwa, Aweer, Benet, Sengwer and Yaaku communities will bring to APAC in Kigali this July.

APAC hopes to position protected and conserved areas in Africa within the broader goals of economic development, community well-being, and to increase the understanding of the vital role that parks play in conserving biodiversity and delivering the ecosystem services that underpin human welfare and livelihoods.

“We have scientific proof that communities at the local level conserve biodiversity better than governments and NGOs combined,” said Patrick Kipalu, RRI’s Africa Program Director.

“Why? Because conservation for communities is not a separate activity. For communities, conservation is life.”


It is our hope that by publicizing the conservation success story of the Ogiek of Mt. Elgon, we can draw attention to the ways in which secure tenure rights for the continent’s Indigenous and local communities is a viable and scientifically proven solution to the dual climate and biodiversity crises.

Click here to see the Laboot Declaration from the East Africa Assemblies 2022 (June 2022 in Chepkitale).

For questions, comments or interview requests, please email Nicole Harris.


Interested in receiving notifications about new blog posts? Subscribe to The Land Writes Blog now to get new posts delivered right to your inbox.

Subscribe to this blog
To receive new articles directly in your inbox
Subscribe Now!
Subscribe to the RRI mailing list
to receive new articles directly in your inbox
Subscribe Now!
Subscribe to the Gender Justice Digest
to receive new articles directly in your inbox
Subscribe Now!